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The General History of Virginia Introduction Packet
John Smith Biography
John Smith was a British soldier who was a founder of the American colony of
Jamestown in the early 1600s. Adventurer, poet, mapmaker and egotist are
just a few of the labels that apply to Smith, who earned a reputation as one of
England’s most famous explorers by helping lead the first successful English
colony in America. Stories of his adventures, often embellished by his own
pen, fascinated readers of his day and continue to provide details about the
early exploration of the Americas.
Smith and a group of colonists landed in Virginia in 1607 and founded
Jamestown. As president of the colony from 1608 to 1609, Smith helped to
obtain food, enforce discipline and deal with the local Native Americans.
Their main purpose was to generate profit in the form of mineral wealth and
goods. Although Smith returned to England in 1609, he made two more
voyages to America and, in 1614 explored what he called New England. Using
his skills as a mapmaker to chart his course, Smith mapped out the coast from
Penobscot Bay, Maine, to Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
On a second voyage to further carve out new and charted lands, Smith found
himself in dangerous company of pirates who held him against his will.
Although Smith managed to escape, he returned to England without any
money. In 1617, he made one final colonizing effort, but his ship was held
back by wind gusts that lasted three months. After that, he never had a
chance to set sail. Smith published several works in the course of his life,
including The General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Isles
Jamestown Colony
The Virginia Company of London sent an expedition to establish a settlement
in the Virginia Colony in December 1606. Word was that the Spanish had
found “mountains of gold” in this new land, so these voyagers were intent on
finding riches as well as a sea route to Asia. After an unusually long journey of
more than four months, the 104 men and boys arrived at their chosen
settlement spot in Virginia. There were no women on the first ships.
On May 14, 1607, the colonists chose Jamestown Island for their settlement
largely because the Virginia Company advised them to select a location that
could be easily defended from attacks by other European states. The settlers
came ashore and quickly set about constructing their initial fort. Within a
month, the James Fort covered an acre on Jamestown Island.
It soon became apparent why the Virginia Indians did not occupy the site:
Jamestown Island is a swampy area, and its isolation from the mainland
meant that there was limited hunting available. The settlers quickly hunted
and killed off all the large and smaller game animals that were found on the
tiny peninsula. In addition, the low, marshy area was infested with airborne
pests, including mosquitoes which carried malaria, and the water of the tidal
James River was not a good source of water. Over 135 settlers died from
malaria, and drinking the salinated and contaminated water caused many to
suffer from saltwater poisoning, fevers and diarrea.
“The starving time” occurred during the winter of 1609–10. The colonists, the
first group of whom had originally arrived at Jamestown on May 14, 1607, had
never planned to grow all of their own food. Instead, their plans also
depended upon trade with the local Virginia Indians to supply them with
enough food between the arrival of periodic supply ships from England, upon
which they also relied. This period of extreme hardship for the colonists began
in 1609 with a drought which caused their already limited farming activities to
produce even fewer crops than usual. The impending hardship was further
compounded by the loss of their most skillful leader in dealing with the
Powhatan Confederacy in trading for food: Captain John Smith. He became
injured in August 1609 in a gunpowder accident, and was forced to return to
England for medical attention in October 1609. After Smith left, Chief
Powhatan severely curtailed trading with the colonists for food.
In 1610, John Rolfe arrived in Jamestown and began a successful crop of
tobacco which he was soon able to export it into Europe, establishing the
Jamestown region as a successful crop producing land. The tobacco demand
grew and attracted many more colonists to the new settlement.
American Indians
Estimates vary, but it is likely that 50,000 or more people called the
Chesapeake region home before the English arrived. Their ancestors had lived
here for at least 10,000 years—so the ways of life of the native people were
highly adapted to the geographic environment. Their economic, cultural,
social, political, and spiritual systems were well established and sophisticated.
Living in Communities
The Indians of the Chesapeake Bay lived in towns situated along the rivers and
waterways where they could get fresh drinking water. Towns ranged in size
from about 50 to more than 200 inhabitants and contained homes,
storehouses, gathering places, ceremonial and religious structures, and
garden plots. Wooden fences, known as palisades, surrounded some
communities to protect them from military action and wild animals.
Diverse Languages and Cultures
There were many different tribes and cultures of Chesapeake Bay Indians.
Before contact, there were at least three different language families
(Algonquian, Siouan, and Iroquoian) and multiple dialects and cultural
No two Indian tribes had exactly the same culture. However, some of the
interesting features common among Chesapeake Indian tribes in the early
1600s included:
 Matrilineal societies: Most of the indigenous peoples of the
Chesapeake identified their lineage through their mothers, not their
 Names: Many people had several names, including a secret personal
name, a name used when they were a child, and a name taken when
they were older. Other names could be earned to reflect achievements
or nicknames.
 Spirituality: Most native peoples were intensely spiritual. They
believed in a Creator and saw all parts of the natural world, including
themselves, as interconnected. Many were known to make prayers
and offerings daily.
 Clothing: People wore clothes made of animal hides. Generally, men
wore breechcloths and women wore aprons. If they were going into
the forest, they wore leggings and moccasins. In cold weather, they
draped animal skins around their shoulders.
 Tattoos, paint, and differing hairstyles expressed identity among
different tribes.
Powhatan Tribes
The dominant American Indian group in the Chesapeake region were
Algonquian speakers known collectively as the Powhatan tribes. Their
paramount chief, Powhatan, had inherited leadership of a number of tribes,
including the Powhatan, Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Arrohateck, Appomatuck, and
Youghtanund. He gained leadership of additional tribes, either by conquest or
threat of conquest. The tribes of this paramount chiefdom provided military
support and paid tribute of food, animal pelts, copper, or other gifts.
Of all the encounters between Captain John Smith and Indians of the
Chesapeake, none was more important than his contact with Powhatan. After
being captured by Powhatan in 1607, Captain John Smith negotiated an
alliance that helped the colony survive its first year. However, his subsequent
dealings with other tribes led to the collapse of this alliance. By the time
Captain John Smith left Virginia, there was open conflict between Powhatan
and the English.
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